|Author: Karsemeyer, John
Melody Player likes acoustic guitars. Wait, that’s not quite correct, because her feelings transcend like and find themselves in the love category; that category which contains many different kinds of love. Love, in this case, is more than just a four letter word.
Years ago in a youthful land, where she now no longer lives, Melody bought her first guitar. It was and still is a pink and black Silvertone arch top guitar with “f” holes in the top, from Sears and Roebuck. It was love at first sight, which was quickly followed by more love at first pluck. She doesn’t know why she was so attracted to the guitar when she first saw it. “It’s a mystery,” she occasionally says out loud, even today. “Just like my brother likes to raise blue-tick hounds, and I don’t. And he doesn’t like to play a guitar, and I do, and I can’t figure out why. But I just accept it.”
But love, as you all know, often fades like a brilliant sun that slowly goes down behind a majestic mountain at the end of a summer’s day. Sometimes love fades and is gone, and sometimes it fades and stays around without its initial intensity. The flame burns lower and lower. And it changes into a different kind of love from when the genie was first let out of the bottle. But your wish to make it come back as it first was doesn’t come true because the genie has disappeared. Even so, it is still there, softly lingering. And you embrace it for what it is and for what it becomes as the years come and go. Or maybe you don’t.
Melody still loves that first old guitar that reached out to her years ago. But ten years after she got it temptation grabbed her fast and hard when she saw an amazing guitar in the window of a local music shop as she was walking to the grocery store. She did a double take and stopped dead in her invisible tracks on the sidewalk. Her feeling of knowing better was quickly discarded as she opened the door of the music shop and walked in.
As she got closer to the curvaceous wood and wire six stringed American beauty she could see the inscription on the headstock of the guitar, and she read it aloud, “C.F. Marvin.” The music shop owner couldn’t help noticing her eagle-eyed fix on the guitar, and walked over to her.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Can you tell me something about this guitar?”
As the shop owner’s personal excitement began to grow he replied, “Well, this guitar comes from a long line of guitars that first started in 1833 by a gentleman with the name of Carl Frankly Marvinsky. He came to the United States in the early 1800’s from Poland, and when he checked in at Ellis Island his name got changed from Marvinsky to Marvin. At first he wasn’t happy about the name change, but eventually he came to like it. And when he made his first guitar while living in the USA he put his new name on the headstock. He thought it sounded more American, and he wanted to embrace the Americana concept as much as possible. He did have a dog named Barkinsky, but he didn’t change it because he felt that you have to have some souvenirs that remind you where you come from. That was way back then, a long time ago, when he arrived in New York City, and set up his first guitar shop. Some years later he left New York and pulled into Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in the Lelow Valley region of the state, where the guitar shop still exists today. Most people don’t know about it because the Marvin family likes to keep a low profile. The small but outstanding shop and its highly skilled twenty guitar makers are now overseen by his great-great-great-grandson C.F. Marvin IV. Little did old Carl Frankly Marvin know back then that just five miles away over the hills another small struggling guitar maker had taken up residence, and that it would develop into one of the world’s leading guitar factories that produce acoustic guitars today. In fact there are many acoustic guitar players who own at least one of these other brands of guitars. Quite a few people get the names of these two different guitar makers mixed up.”
“Wow, that’s a heap of information. So can I give this guitar a try?” Melody asked as she managed to contain her erupting enthusiasm.
“Sure, go ahead. I’ll be over at the counter if you have any questions, and I’ll check back with you later. Please take all the time you need,” he said.
After about a half hour of playing the guitar Melody asked the shop person, “When was this guitar made?”
“It’s about 20 years old, but the original owner took good care of it. No abuse, no cracks, no repairs. It’s in great condition,” he said.
After looking at the price tag on the guitar she stood up and said, “I’ll have to think about it,” and then she left the guitar shop. “That’s the best guitar I ever played,” Melody thought to herself. Little did she know that the guitar would take up residence in her mind after she left it behind. She got into her car, thought about it some more, and said, “Now that is a YOLO guitar if I ever saw one. No doubt about it, a You Only Live Once guitar.”
At two o’clock the next morning she awoke from a dream in which she was standing outside of the guitar shop, peering through the window, and seeing the guitar again. After Melody was awake for two minutes a feeling overwhelmed her. A warm glowing feeling that can only be described as a guitar playing woman’s intuition. “I’m going to get that guitar,” she said to herself. Her feeling and decision were so strong that she could not go back to sleep. The guitar store didn’t open until ten o’clock, but the nine cups of extra strong coffee over the next two hours insured that she would not go back to sleep, as the darkness outside her bedroom window went into slow motion.
Melody was too excited to eat breakfast. As the sun was coming up through her front window she began her preparations. She called the guitar store on the telephone before it opened and left a message. “This is Melody Player. Please hold that Marvin guitar that you have in your store front window, and please don’t sell it to anyone else! I’ll be at your shop exactly at ten this morning.” After a quick shower and another cup of coffee she got dressed and sat directly in front of her old grandfather clock and waited. “Tick tock, tick tock.” The three hour wait until the guitar store opened seemed like three days. It was a thirty minute drive from her home in the foothills to the guitar shop, and when nine-thirty finally rolled around she rushed out of her front door, got into her 1941 restored Ford with the big Chevy engine, and hit the gas pedal hard.
Too hard, in fact. Twenty minutes into her drive she heard a siren, looked in her rear view mirror, and saw the flashing red lights of a black and white that was following her.
“In a big hurry?” the policewoman said.
“Well yes I am. I’m rushing to get something that I really want, and I don’t want to miss it. I know you would think it silly if I told you what it was.”
“Okay, try me,” the policewoman said. Then Melody explained to the officer about the guitar. Turns out the officer was a guitar player herself, and let Melody go with just a warning (long story short).
As Melody arrived in town a half hour later than she expected and got out of her car right in front of the guitar shop, she looked at the display window. And as she did her heart sank. “The window is empty!” she shouted, causing people on the sidewalk to do a double take as they focused their attention on her. “I’m going to need to see my therapist on this one,” she thought to herself. As her anger boiled up inside her she opened the door to the shop and went in to give the shop owner a piece of her mind.
Before she could utter any words the guitar shop owner spotted her and said, “Oh I’m glad you’re here. I got your phone message and pulled the guitar out of the window.” Suddenly a bad day turned into a good one. That day the guitar went to its new home with Melody.
After that guitar acquiring experience, the days, months, and years went by. As time passed, Melody’s house seemed to grow smaller and smaller. Musicians do what musicians do, and some musicians find themselves acquiring first one, then two, three, more, and then more musical instruments until they have a room full. Melody’s once large sized guest room is now filled with ninety-nine guitars, and there is barely enough room to get to the window to open or close it. When people occasionally visit her they are overwhelmed with what they see. She has built stands that neatly hold all of her guitars and keep them up off of the floor to prevent them from absorbing cold in the winter and heat in the summer. Melody also installed mechanical devices that keep the room at a constant temperature of 70 degrees, with 50% relative humidity, so that the guitars will not be ruined by extremes of heat or cold, and too low or too high relative humidity in the air. Just for good measure she always keeps the guitars in their cases unless she is playing them.
Melody was fourteen years old when she got her first guitar. But as it has been said, “That was then, and this is now.” And as she occupies the now, in her mid eighties, Melody frequently asks herself and others, “Where have all the years gone, and how did they go so fast?” Many changes occurred during those years that affected Melody’s life, and consequently her outlook on life. Her acquaintances frequently ask, “Melody, why do you have so many guitars? “Well I don’t know. It’s just feels right,” is her usual response. After a while Melody began to frequently ask this question of herself. Recently, during the last of many restless nights without an answer that satisfied her, she decided to do something about it.
“Hello, my name is Doctor Ima Fixya, nice to meet you,” the mental health therapist said to Melody as they both sat down in comfortable chairs and faced each other with a six foot distance between them. “How can I help?”
“Well I don’t know if you can,” Melody responded. “You see I have a problem, or maybe it’s not a problem, but it has been on my mind for quite a long time now.”
“How long is a long time?” the therapist asked.
“Well,” Melody answered, “I have a collection of guitars that I’ve been accumulating over the last sixty or so years. Sometimes I think I have a problem, and sometimes I think I don’t. A couple of people I know think it’s a problem. But I really don’t know if it’s a problem, and that’s why I am here to see you Doctor Fixya. For the last six months or so it’s bothered me the most.”
“Okay Melody, just how many guitars do you have?”
“The last time I counted I had ninety-nine guitars,” Melody said.
“I see Melody, ninety-nine guitars. Is this a guitar shop that you own where they are for sale?”
“Oh no, doctor. If I had a shop it wouldn’t be a problem for me, but these are my personal guitars. I don’t know if I’m a hoarder, a collector, or just plain greedy.”
“I understand Melody. Did someone give you all these instruments, or did you just buy them?”
“I bought most of them, and some I inherited.”
“Okay, and has your spending money on guitars made it a problem in other areas of your life?”
“A problem? What do you mean by a problem?” Melody was not quite sure what the therapist was asking.
“What I mean is has your spending caused you to not be able to pay your bills, or buy groceries, pay your rent, buy clothes, and things like that?”
“No, no, nothing like that Doctor Fixya. I worked for forty years, paid off my house, and then retired with a fairly good pension. I’m not in debt.”
“I understand Melody. And how does your husband feel about you buying all of these guitars? I see you are wearing a lovely wedding ring. Do you think he has a problem with it?”
“My husband? He thinks I belong in a Looney bin for musicians who can’t stop buying instruments. He used to say that if I bought one more guitar he was going to leave me. And you know, at that particular time I was okay with that. A week later I bought another guitar. But he didn’t leave. He was bluffing. That’s probably because he can’t cook, doesn’t like to shop for groceries or his own clothes, and has a dependent personality disorder. He really didn’t want to leave his mother fifty years ago to marry me, but I convinced him he should do it anyway? Do you think I made the right decision?”
“Well that was a long time ago Melody, and we’re here to focus on your issue of guitars,” said the doctor of the mind as her own curiosity about Melody’s guitars gained speed.
“Okay, right doc, I agree.”
“So Melody, tell me some more about your life. Specifically, about your relationships with parents, children, relatives, and friends.”
“Why do you want to know about that doc? You just said we’re here to focus on my GAS. Whoops, I should explain, that means Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.”
“Just stay with me on this for awhile Melody. Okay?”
“Okay doc. You see, I’m now eighty four years old, and in pretty good health. Arthritis has not taken my hands. Not yet. I’ve been dealt a pretty good hand in the card game of life. Everyday is a pretty good fight since I’m armed with the right prescriptions. Early on I had many friends, acquaintances, relatives, lovers, and three children. As you know, I’m married. But I’ve been married four times before. If you’re wondering about those former husbands I have to say that they were all good men, except one. But as so often happens sometimes life whacks you in the head like you were standing too close behind four legs and a tail of stubbornness and you get mule kicked. Two of my husbands were killed in two different wars. One perished in a car accident. And the last one left me for a nineteen year old girl when he was forty. He told me he was having a mid wife crisis.”
“Hold on Melody, don’t you mean mid life crisis?”
“No doctor, I mean mid wife. Actually I should have said mid wives crisis. That no good womanizer! And as for my three adult children, I don’t even know where they are. They haven’t written or called for years. Everybody I know tells me it’s not my fault, that I was a great mom. Maybe my adult children all have brains that make them beyond independent. As a retired neuroscientist I can say that I think that is a possibility. I had ten brothers and sisters, but they are all gone now. And these days I really don’t have many friends left. The mailman flirts with me all the time, but he is ninety years old, so why bother? He told me he used to work for the Pony Express, but I don’t believe him. And anyway like I said, I’m married now. At my last high school reunion there were only fifteen of us left out of a class of three hundred. I didn’t recognize any of them. That was really depressing. So, that’s about it doc.”
“Thanks for sharing your journey Melody. I know it rekindles quite a few memories for you that may be upsetting as you look back. But tell me, do you remember when your guitar collection started to grow? Let’s say after your second or third guitar?”
“Well let’s see, let me think. Now that I look back I think that it was just after the death of my first husband. Yes, that’s exactly when it was.”
“Okay that’s good Melody. So do you think that there was some kind of link or relationship that may have motivated you to buy another guitar at that time?”
“Could be, I never thought about it like that,” Melody replied.
“You know Melody, I think we may be on to something here. Can you think of any other time in your life when your guitar buying had a relationship to a loss in your life?”
“Let’s see, let me think. When my older brother disappeared and never came back, I, yes I did. I bought another one. That’s right. I definitely remember that now. Okay, and when my parents passed, well, okay, that was a big one. Now I remember, I got two guitars that time. And when all of my older brothers and sisters went on to their heavenly reward and I was the only one left, I bought, well I bought, I can’t remember now. Probably it was more than one.”
“So where did you get all these guitars over the years Melody?”
“The internet doc. Used to be I could only go to one guitar store that existed even half-way near where I live in the Sierra foothills, but now you can go all over the United States and the world to shop for guitars. Most places will give you a forty-eight hour approval, so you can return the guitar if you don’t like it. You just have to pay the cost of shipping it back to where it came from.” Just then images of a number of her guitars jumped into Melody’s mind, and she just sat there with a blank stare.
“Where are you right now Melody?” her therapist asked.
“We’ll, I’m just, just thinking about, about, wait a minute. Okay I get it. I have a traumatic event in my life that usually involves a lost relationship with a person I hold dear, and then I buy a guitar. It’s clear to me now. I get it, but what does it mean Doctor Fixya?”
Now wearing a big smile the therapist said, “Okay, here’s what I think it means Melody. When you lose somebody in your life you have a void, an empty place in your life, a new hollow spot in your soul. And as you’ve figured out today that’s when you buy a guitar. But as you know, buying a new guitar doesn’t replace the person you’ve lost. On the other hand, buying a new or different guitar is in fact some kind of replacement, on an unconscious level. Think about it. A guitar isn’t human, but in this case it’s a good thing. A human dies, a guitar doesn’t. As the years go by a guitar may get injured, and it may end up with a broken neck, a cracked top, or somebody might shoot it with a gun. But here’s the thing. That injured guitar can usually be fixed. It may not look exactly the same, but it will play just as good, and sound even better as the years go by. And another thing, a guitar won’t leave you. You have to leave it, by selling it or giving it away. When you own a guitar it can become a permanent thing in your life. It gives you joy all of your life, if you play it and take care of it. And it will outlive you. In the grand scheme of all things musical, a guitar, in a certain way, becomes your friend, and there is a relationship that happens when you first get it that develops as the years go by. You take care of it, and it takes care of you, by fulfilling a certain need in your life. There will always be human losses in a person’s life, but at some level a musical instrument like a guitar helps fill the void. At least that is my professional opinion Melody.”
“Okay Dr. Fixya that is starting to make some sense to me. I’ll think on that. So I’m not crazy after all? Do I have to be in therapy for years and years to deal with this?”
“No Melody you’re not crazy, and even if you are, it’s a good kind of crazy. And no, you don’t have to come back for another session, unless you want to. But there is one more thing. I know that you life has a certain emptiness because you only have relationships with a few folks, and all of your relatives are gone. So there is one thing I’d recommend you do, especially since you are a guitar player and singer.”
“What’s that Doctor Fixya?”
“Well Melody, I just happen to know that the California Bluegrass Association has a big four day bluegrass music festival coming up this year in Grass Valley in the middle of June. In addition to all of the great bluegrass bands playing on stages, there are hundreds of people who have music jams in their campsites where you can go and play and sing. These jams are friendly, and you’ll gain instant acceptance just because you are a musician. And you might even make some new friends there to play music with for years and years to come after the festival ends. Just get on your computer and go to the California Bluegrass Association’s website and look for the events they have listed.” Melody wondered how Doctor Fixya knew about this bluegrass stuff, but that thought quickly flew from her mind.
“Wow, that’s great doc. You’ve helped me a lot today, and I thank you for it. What do I owe you for the therapy session today?”
“Don’t worry about it Melody, this one’s on me. No charge. When you go home today revisit your wood and wire friends and feel good about having all of them around.”
I’m talking about the condenser microphone. After Bell Labs invented it in 1916, it took off and allowed radio and record listeners to listen to bands like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, etc. etc. When the bands played out on tour they hooked up a single microphone, connected it to an amplifier, and wowed audiences with the fabulous new technology. The band members huddled around the single microphone like a warm fire and if a couple sang a romantic duet, they had to be cheek to cheek in order for the audience to hear both of them properly.
For a Bluegrass band, the lead singer would stand closest to the microphone but would make way for an instrumentalist to play their instrument right into the microphone when it came time for a solo. Three part harmony required three carefully placed singers sharing a single electronic conduit.
Nowadays condenser microphones are pretty much just used for studio recording. They’re so sensitive to sound that most stage bands prefer to use dynamic microphones with monitors (for the musicians to hear the mix of their fellow musicians). Each musician and instrument is individually wired with a pickup or mic and the sound engineer pushes dials up or down to get the right mix. At least that’s about as much as I understand about it. Anyone who has ever played in a band and tried to set up their own sound for a gig understands how difficult it can be to get a good sound with all the complex variables involved.
Trust me, it’s much better to be out there in the audience hearing all that sound than worrying about it! I appreciate good sound mixing. If I can hear the softer sounds of the guitar on a solo, that’s good. If everything is too loud and my ears can barely stand it (an all too frequent occurrence), that’s bad. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard loud audio in a room the size of a shoe box. Come on, these are acoustic instruments! If someone could hear Pavarotti without a mic at La Scala, why do I need to hear a banjo at 120 decibels when I could probably hear the whole band just fine with no amplification?
The stage choreography involved with using a single mic is complicated too, but oh, so much fun to watch. With a condenser mic, you don't need a speaker monitor for each musician. They hear each other just as they would if they were playing in a jam at the bass player's home. These are acoustic instruments after all! And it's a good thing they don't have the monitors because that would just get in the way of the ballet.
The last time I saw single mic live sound mixing done well was by the Del McCoury band at the Raven Theater here in Healdsburg about five years ago. Those guys worked their tails off to dance up to the microphone on cue at the right time. They played every request I heard called out from the audience, whether it was their own tune or not. And the musicians did their own mixing just by using their body positioning. I’ve never heard any better sound. Old school. Microphone Ballet.
As Melody Player was driving her used but reliable pickup truck from the big city to her rustic cabin in the pines in the northern California foothills she felt a peace sweep over her. She now felt good about her decisions over the years to buy all of her guitars. And in these days of people charging each other for every little thing that they do, Melody couldn’t quite understand why her therapist hadn’t charged her a dime for the therapy session. Little did Melody know that Dr. Fixya secretly owns two hundred guitars, and that it took her two years of intensive therapy for her to realize that that is okay.
That night Melody was drifting off into her personal land of dreams, where she often becomes young again. During her last conscious moment she heard herself say, “Growing old is like being imprisoned for a crime that I didn’t commit. But at least it’s tolerable if I have ninety-nine guitars in my cell.”
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